The Not-Boring Tech Writer podcast: Getting your first job in Technical Communication

Catherine Heath | January 10, 2019

We are very happy to support the The Not Boring Tech Writer podcast hosted by Jacob Moses. In this post, we wrote up the episode called “Skill #13: Getting Your First Job in Technical Communication”.

Thaddeus Dieken is a technical writer with Accuray, and he’s recently graduated from an English degree. Jacob interviewed Tad about getting your first job as a technical writer.

The question on many aspiring technical writers’ minds is: how do you get your first job? And then once you get that job, how do you navigate the workplace?

The nature of technical writing

Tad says, “Technical writing coincided well with my own personal interests. I love learning as much as I can about literally anything. Now every single day I get to come in to work and learn something new on the job.”

Technical writing is just as much about learning as it is about writing. It’s about understanding a product and getting to grips with it to a level of detail that most people never even think about.

“My English teacher in high school was always pushing for me to pursue a career in journalism, but the technical writing path better matches my interests and writing aptitude.”

Journalism is often the default field for writers, and it’s a career that many pursue. But the temperament required for journalism means it’s not for everyone – plus there are many jobs other than journalism that involve writing.

How to get into technical writing

Once you decide that technical writing is the career for you, there are still more obstacles in the way. Technical writing has no official career path, although some do study technical communication. There are also other ways to find your way into technical writing.

“I knew I wanted to use writing in some sort of capacity, but wasn’t necessarily sure at the beginning of my degree how I wanted to do that. The people in my university who wanted to do technical writing majored in English, and also did a specialty attached to that – for example, computer science or math.

“During my degree, I fell into a student technical writing position with my university’s IT department. This opened my eyes more to technical writing as a career. Some of my fellow English students were interested in technical writing too, and this influenced my decision.

Applying for a technical writing job at Accuray

Tad works full-time as a technical writer at Accuray. He tells us how this position inspired him to commit to technical writing as a career.

“Whenever I applied for different job positions, I curated my application to be more marketable. It’s helpful to be able to compensate for the lack of experience by emphasizing the culture or personality fit.

“I realized this was the career path for me when I got my first full-time position and started working with Accuray, my current company. They make cancer chemotherapy radiation equipment, and I work for the manufacturing department. The documentation I create is used by the assembly technicians.”

Tad’s documentation benefits his coworkers, as it’s used to help technicians assemble life-saving equipment.

“On the assembly lines, they make these crazy intricate machines. It was very surreal when I stepped back to remember how I never thought I would use my English degree for this. I realized how much I had to learn, and how fun the position would be.”

Learning the skills you need for technical writing

Technical writing is about much, much more than writing. It’s an intellectually demanding job that requires strong technical capacity. Although many writers may believe they aren’t “technical”, in reality this is a skill that can be learned.

Jacob Moses: “Most technical writers seem to fall into this field but you can use your writing skills to work in this field. Technical writing pays well and that there is no ceiling – especially in the area of developer documentation.”

Tad says, “The hardest thing for most people is working out how to get their foot in the door. Every tech writer position seems to require 2–4 years of experience, which is hard for beginners. From my technical writing classes, I was able to build up a portfolio of documents I was able to then share with employers.”

If you’re lucky enough to take a technical writing class, this can help you produce some samples for a portfolio. But real-world job experience is also invaluable.

“I had a student technical writing position for the IT department. It involved technical writing, social media, and some copywriting. It was the perfect student position for an English major like me, because it put me in a good place where I was qualified for a couple of different career options.”

“My friend also gave me his Lynda login information, and using online courses I taught myself HTML and XML. Being able to showcase those skillsets helped me get my first position as a technical writer.”

Don’t shy away from learning basic technical skills like HTML and XML. The internet is full of free and paid resources to help you learn. Lynda is a course library hosted by LinkedIn, but there are many others such as Udemy and Codecademy.

Overcoming the fear of becoming more technical

Despite the availability of resources, many writers don’t consider themselves naturally technical. This creates a barrier to learning, and puts many people off becoming technical writers.

Jacob Moses: “I loved writing as a student. But when we started talking about computer languages I was super intimidated. Maybe listeners have bought into the writing aspect of tech comm, but feel discouraged about picking up some of these programming languages.”

Tad says, “How much you need to learn depends on the position that you’re going aspiring for. Some positions may need much more specialist programming languages. But a large amount of positions just want a general familiarity with code. You’re not the person doing programming, but you need enough to talk shop to the Subject Matter Expert (SME).

“HTML and XML are great starting points to pick up. They are tag-based and have rigid rule structures that means you can pick them up quite quickly, and it’s easy to develop a general understanding of Python (another programming language).”

Joining technical writing communities

Something every jobseeker knows is the value of a community for getting started in a new field. Not only can you find important information that you never would have discovered otherwise, but the energy is infectious. Having a support network can keep you motivated.

Society of Technical Communication can be beneficial for the information that they provide. Write the Docs also has some great newsletters and posts for the more nuanced ins and out for everything currently going on in tech comm. You get a huge leg up being involved in these kinds of networks.”

No matter your level of expertise, or skill or naivety when it comes to tech comm, Write the Docs is very welcoming.

“Technical writing is going in so many different directions right now, so you can have a lot of flexibility in your career path. For example, if you want to work in leadership there are a lot of opportunities to go into project management. Or UX design is an avenue if you’re interested in graphic design. It’s a very versatile career that allows you to explore all sorts of personal interests.”

Jacob Moses: “I actually studied tech comm at university, and I was given a good base in all of the different areas. I had one class in help and manuals, which many people didn’t like because they didn’t think they were going to write manuals. But it was just one class, and the time we spent on it was valuable.”

The daily life of a technical writer

If you ask the average person what the daily job of a technical writer looks like, they probably wouldn’t be able to tell you. Tad shares with us what his job at Accuray is like.

“I’m the only technical writer in our department at the moment. My day involves lots of emails. I often connect with our engineers over documentation for any new lines of equipment that need to be put in place for customers.

“I edit a lot of old documents to make sure they reflect our current line of product. I feel very excited when I get to generate new user manuals that our assembly technicians use because I can learn so much.

“Normally I work in a cubicle in a standard office, but it’s linked to the manufacturing area. If I have any questions I can go to where they’re assembling multi-million dollar equipment, and ask the engineers any questions about the documentation. I also get to learn a lot about medical equipment, which I had no experience in before this job."

What if I'm an introvert?

Technical writers can consider themselves both introverts and extroverts, although it's often seen as a more classically "introverted" type of role. One stereotype is the lone technical writer typing away in a room by themselves, rarely or never seen by coworkers. 

“Before starting this job, I assumed that technical writing was a career for introverts, but there is actually a huge social aspect to the job. The information you need for your documentation might not be there in front of you, and sometimes you need to track it down. Networking with your colleagues is really important.

“I consider myself an introvert and there was a jump to be able to get that information from SMEs. The way to offset any fear is to ask lots of questions and be very curious about everything. This kind of attitude is received well by most people. It helps me get information from SMEs by being transparent that I don’t yet know a process, but I’m super interested to get more information about it.”

When you get your first job as a technical writer, don’t be scared to communicate with engineers. Stay humble and curious by admitting what you don’t know, but also go the extra mile to learn as much as you can.

Over to you! 

There’s no easy way to get a job in technical writing, but if you work hard you stand a good chance of making a career out of it. It’s a great field for writers of all kinds, and there is a lot of scope to develop yourself.

Tad says, “It really comes down to keep being motivated and keep pushing. Something is going to work out eventually, even if you’ve had five interviews already. You never get the job that you don’t apply for. So still apply for the job even if you don’t think you’re qualified.”

“There are also a bunch of tech writing contracting jobs out there that are more short term. More seasoned tech writers might shy away from them in favour of more long-term contracts, but if you’re entry level this is the perfect opportunity to get your first technical writing job. I actually started off as a three-month contract at Accuray, but they hired me full-time at the end.”

Follow Tad’s example and take a chance on less-than-perfect opportunities, because you never know where they might lead you. Now listen to the podcast in full, or check out our previous post covering the podcast relaunch!

Our own knowledge base software KnowledgeOwl is used by many new and seasoned technical writers. Take it for a free spin.

About the author
Catherine Heath
Catherine Heath

Community builder at KnowledgeOwl. Blogs. Copy. Documentation. Freelance content writer for creative and ethical companies. Contributing to open source and teaching technical tools.

Catherine blogs on her personal websites Away With Words and Awkward Writer. She runs the Write the Docs Northwest meetup group. 

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